The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of digital tools in our everyday lives, and the lives of children with disabilities are no different. For many, digital acts as a great equaliser: when you are online, you can be just like any other teenager, not defined by your disability. However, some can feel digitally excluded and unable to benefit fully from the EU’s digital transformation.
Together with the Green Deal, the digital transformation is one of the current Commission’s main priorities. 20 % of the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF), established to help the EU countries emerge from the Coronavirus crisis, has been earmarked for investment in digital. The European Commission's digital strategy seeks to build technology that boosts the economic growth but above all works for people, including the 100 million Europeans with some kind of disability or special educational needs.
Both the digital strategy and the Green Deal will have a clear impact on the future of all young people in Europe, and also the most vulnerable among them have the right to access and use digital tools. Under the theme ‘Digital (dis)advantage: creating an inclusive world for children and young people online’, the 2020 Safer Internet Forum, an action under the European Strategy for a Better Internet for Children (‘BIK strategy’), looked into challenges, opportunities and practical solutions for increasing digital inclusiveness.
A record participation with strong youth presence
The first exclusively online Safer Internet Forum 2020 attracted around 650 registrations from over 65 countries all over the world – record numbers in the 17-year history of the forum. The participants – young people, parents and teachers, industry representatives and policy-makers, technological experts, and political, educational and social leaders – explored inclusive resources and platforms developed by industry, NGOs and Safer Internet Centres as well as technology solutions in special education. In the keynote session, Professor Laura Lundy, an expert in child rights and child participation from Queen’s University, Belfast, presented her findings on the challenges and opportunities of children with diverse disabilities in digital environment. In their reply, young people with disabilities and stakeholders confirmed Professor Lundy’s message: ‘Digital inclusiveness is not a gift from adults but it is the right of a child.’
Two days of side events complemented the main Safer Internet Forum. As many times before, it was the Better Internet for Kids – BIK – Youth panellists and other young people who stole the show. Firstly, the young participants challenged some members of the industry Alliance to better protect minors online with their BIK youth pledge in an ongoing co-creation project on child-friendly terms and conditions due to finish next year. Secondly, the BIK Youth presented their ideas for a better and safer internet with strong video messages for kindness, understanding and respect online. ‘Inspiring’, ‘thought-provoking’ and ‘amazing’ was how the adult participants described the interventions by BIK Youth. A good example of youth participation and of the benefits it brings to all involved.
The EU continues to help protect and empower children and young people online
Last but not least, the forum examined two EU strategies:
The BIK policy mapping survey on the European Strategy for a Better Internet for Children (2012) in the Member States and beyond confirmed that child online safety and empowerment are now mainstreamed in national policies, largely thanks to the strategy as a benchmark and a global best practice. The new EU strategy on more effective fight against child sexual abuse (.pdf) (2020) was the focus of a session chaired by the EU co-funded INHOPE network of hotlines with a key message: to combat the heinous, borderless crime of abuse, we must join forces. The EU, or any other actor, cannot work alone, and cooperation with other international organisations, technology industry and public bodies is a necessity. Global issues call for global solutions.
Child online safety and empowerment is not a one-off exercise, and the EU institutions continue to fund, coordinate, regulate and facilitate self-regulation in the field. Next year will see the new comprehensive EU strategy on the rights of the child, including digital rights, and a legislative proposal on fighting child sexual abuse. Also the BIK Strategy should stay up to date and relevant and in line with other EU actions. These are just a few examples of how EU wants to protect children’s rights online and keep up with the rapidly changing digital environment. Improving children’s digital experiences benefits ultimately everybody. As one young member of the BIK youth pledge stated: ‘It is important also for the older generations to know what they sign up for.’
The Commission stays firmly committed to child online safety, especially this year when the EU slogan ‘United in diversity’ has become true reality. The Safer Internet Forum is sadly over, but we are already looking forward to the next milestone in the ongoing challenge for a better internet: Safer Internet Day 2021 on 9 February. Do not miss it!